Hints of horrors haunt Williston

Strange events are everywhere, but no one’s talking

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

On the moonless night of Aug. 27, 1865, two men stole through the blackness and into the Williston home of 65-year-old Sally Griswold. They had ridden into town on a train the night before to do a job.

That job was murder.

The men crept up to Griswold’s bedroom and dragged her screaming from her bed. She struggled, but they stabbed her to death, and then placed her corpse in the woodshed behind her house.

Griswold’s son-in-law, a Mr. Potter, hired the two men to kill his mother-in-law and find the stash of gold she was supposedly hiding.

The two men were later arrested and they implicated Potter as their employer. All three were convicted of murder, but the gold was never found. This Halloween, look for Griswold’s ghost wandering Williston in search of her lost gold.

Hints abound in the town – such as the Griswold murder, which can be found in several books about Williston’s history – about hauntings and strange phenomena, although actual stories are harder to come by. Even veteran ghost hunter and master of the weird Joe Citro had a hard time finding anything out. Citro recently spoke at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, but he said that he couldn’t find much local to talk about.

“I said I didn’t know about anything weird, so I accused the people at the library of a massive cover-up,” Citro said. “There’s got to be something weird, but it’s something that I just haven’t discovered yet.”

Citro did mention the Griswold murder case, which he found out about while leafing through Willard Sterne Randall and Nancy Nahra’s book, “Thomas Chittenden’s Town: The Story of Williston.”

That book also makes mention of spiritualism, a quasi-religious movement popular in the 19 th century and whose followers claim to be able to speak with the dead. Spiritualism was founded in 1848 by sisters Margaretta and Kate Fox, who heard strange tapping noises in their home in Hydesville, N.Y. The sisters claimed the noises were made by the spirit of a murdered peddler who was buried under their house, and with whom they could communicate. In 1888, Margaret told a journalist that they had faked the whole thing, and the rapping was actually the sisters’ cracking their toe knuckles under the table. But she later recanted her confession and the movement lived on.

According to Randall and Nahra’s book, the house on the corner of Oak Hill Road and Williston Road was once the local headquarters of the spiritualists, where many séances were held. Perhaps some spirits were called forth and remain trapped in the area to this day.

Another book, “The Williston Story” by F. Kennon Moody and Floyd Putnam, says the only written record of spiritualism in Williston was found in Laura Parker’s attic in 1940. The document, now missing, recorded several conversations with departed spirits as told by medium M.L. Allen. However, one of her “conversations” was with Abraham Lincoln, who recommended someone named Baxter for local office; and one was with Williston Universalist Minister Joseph Sargent, who admitted the error of his Universalist ways and said heaven was populated mostly by spiritualists. So the legitimacy of her paranormal liaisons is somewhat questionable.

Other local sites, not in history books, are also hinted at as hives of paranormal activity.

Jim McCullough, owner of Catamount Family Center, lives in a house that was built by Gov. Thomas Chittenden in 1796, and he suggested some mysteries exist there.

“The house has a presence and a persona that go hand in hand with a 200-year-old property,” McCullough said. He said he did not want to say more, out of respect for his forebears who inhabited (or perhaps still inhabit) the house, which his family has owned since 1873.

Ex-nuclear physicist and Vermont ghost hunter Stephen Marshall has investigated paranormal activity all over the state, and says ghosts are here to stay.

“The phenomenon does exist, whether you believe in it or not,” Marshall said from his home in White River Junction.